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the number one way to make your photos better

Note: It feels strange and kinda bossy to tell you how to take good pictures coming from a girl who doesn’t even know how to shoot manually. My camera is old-ish and I only have the one lens it came with, but after four years of playing and learning and trying, my photographs have vastly improved (just look at some of the early blog posts – like this one – and you’ll notice a big difference in the quality of images). So I’m not coming to you as an photography expert, but rather someone who hacks her way through to deliver the best quality I can. Creating an attractive blog depends greatly on good images, so I do the best I can with the tools and knowledge and skills I have …

and I always follow this very important tip:

turn-off-the-lights

It seems so counter-intuitive –  you’d think you need as much light as possible to get a bright photo and turning on the lights makes more sense. But when taking indoor photos, the opposite is true.

When my office was photographed last year for Better Homes & Gardens, they shot in the middle of winter, with gray skies and very little natural light. And still, they turned off the lights. Every single one in the house.

IMG_9738

(BHG stylist & photographers working with only natural light – december 2012)

I learned a lot watching the professionals work their magic and have since adopted the turn off the lights strategy for blog photos. It has made such a difference in the quality of images I post.

Here’s an example from yesterday. The sun was not out and it was actually quite dark and dreary outside:

office-lighting

The photo on the left was taken with overhead and task lights on. The photo on the right was taken with all lights off.

The photo with only natural light looks brighter and clearer and the colors are truer to real life. It’s still a little bit dark so that is where just a few simple photoshop edits come in.  For all of my blog post photos I use Pioneer Woman’s free photoshop actions. First I run slight lighten and then define and sharpen, adjusting the opacity as needed. Then, the photo is ready for posting:

desk-edited

You would never know from the photo that it was actually a gray, dark day.

Here’s another example:

tulip-lighting

This one is in our kitchen – on the left with overhead lights and lamps on, on the right with only the window as a source of light.

Again, I run the photo through the same actions and the photo turns out crisp and bright:

tulips-edited

I’m so glad for simple tips and free tools to help us non-professionals!

A few things I’ve learned about taking photos in natural light:

:: turn off all adjacent lights

If you are taking a photo in the living room, make sure the lights are off in the entry and hallway, too (or any other adjacent rooms). It keeps the lighting consistent.

:: open curtains and blinds to allow maximum light

When I take product or tutorial photos, I sit right below a window in my office for the best light and pull the blinds all the way up.

:: take photos when your home is the brightest, with filtered indirect light

Our house gets the best light before noon and I really can’t get a good photo after 4pm. Our winters are dark and gray so there are days that taking photos is just not going to work.  Take advantage of light when you have it!

:: use a tripod

With limited light, your camera’s shutter speed will be slow and any slight movement will cause photos to be blurry. A tripod will stabilize your camera and even with a super slow shutter speed, you’ll get a clear photo.  Most of the time I do not use a tripod, but it definitely does make a difference when I do.

:: play with your camera settings

I use a canon DSLR and shoot in the AV setting. It is probably not the right way to take photos, but it is what I know and I’ve figured out the settings that work for the look I’m going for.  Someday I’ll learn how to photograph manually, but for now I just play around with the ISO and aperture numbers.

It’s pretty fun playing stylist and photographer – I hope these tips are helpful to you, too!

17 thoughts on “the number one way to make your photos better”

  1. Thank you for these great tips, tutorials, etc. I have been a reader for about two years now, I think. We recently had our fourth child, and I’m going to stay home with the kids now. I appreciate the helpful hints and tips on decorating and now the photography, especially since I have four and will be cutting some corners. Also, although it seems goofy I know, I draw a little energy seeing someone as yourself managing and thriving with four children. People tend to drop their jaws when they hear how many kids we have. Thanks for sharing!!

  2. great post Emily! Natural light is ALWAYS the best source of light for photos… basically anything else will make pictures look a weird color. Another trick I have learned is that when you are trying to take a picture indoors where there isn’t a good source of natural light (Like a dark hallway or something) you can sometimes use mirrors or light objects to reflect natural light into that area… as long as you aim the light indirectly toward what you are shooting.(like aiming the reflected light at the ceiling to light the space)

  3. I only started used a DSLR (or any camera much at all, honestly) when I started my blog 2 1/2 years ago. And my husband, who has a lot more experience than I do with cameras, was always trying to get me to use the flash when there wasn’t enough light. And I always hated the results.

    It took me a while before I figure out the tripod + turn-the-lights-off tricks, but once I did, I liked my photos SO. MUCH. BETTER. So, yes, I completely agree with you.

    Also, I was laughing at your description of what you do to get decent photos “semi-manually.” I’m exactly the same way. I can adjust my ISO and aperture settings like a boss, but that’s about it. I’m definitely hoping to up my manual skills this year.

  4. Hi Emily, thanks so much for the lovely tips! I know what you mean about not being able to take a photo in your home after 4 p.m.! Unfortunately I frequently end up having to sacrifice photo quality for availability because the only days I’m home before 4 p.m. are Saturdays and Sundays. I’m looking forward to summer when the sun is out longer.

    http://howtomakehome.blogspot.com

  5. Wow! These tips are great! I do not have a blog, but I do have an etsy shop where photos are also really important to making sales. I am a very amateur photographer and my pix show that to be true :( I just used your tips on a few of my pix and can’t believe the difference just these few changes have made to the quality of the pix. Thanks for being so generous in sharing these tips!

  6. The “right” setting is the one that works for you. I’m a firm believer that it doesn’t matter what camera brand or how much it cost or whatever. If it works for you, it’s works. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to improve though! :)

  7. Thanks Emily! You’re right, great photos make a great blog. The “lights off” tip is so good. I’m wondering if you follow that same mantra when taking candid pics of your kids/family/life inside the house? Sometimes I just want to catch a moment but it’s dark outside and the flash doesn’t give the pic a great look either. Thoughts?

  8. Thanks for the tips! I learned a while back that the best thing I could do, indoors or our, is to turn off the flash and use natural light. Someday I will learn how to be a “real” photographer, but in the meantime any helpful tricks are more than welcome :)

  9. Don’t know if you read “Under the Sycamore” blog but Ashley gives DSLR photography classes online. I think she does 3-4 per year and they sell out fast. Check her blog out if interested.

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